Prime Minister Kishida Passes on Snap Election for Now, Shifts Strategy amid Sagging Support

Dr. Satohiro Akimoto
Chairman and President of Sasakawa USA

Publications Prime Minister Kishida Passes on Snap Election for Now, Shifts Strategy amid Sagging Support

In the spring, speculation had been rife that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida would dissolve the House of Representatives for a snap election at an early date. At the time, his approval ratings were recovering in the wake of a successful G7 summit in Hiroshima, Prime Minister Kishida’s home district, where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an inspiring appearance. However, following the G7 summit, Prime Minister Kishida has faced unexpected headwinds from scandals involving his eldest son Shotaro, to mishandling of the “My Number” ID card system by Digital Affairs Minister Taro Kono, and discord with coalition partner Komeito over election strategy. As a result, the Kishida Cabinet’s approval ratings have taken a plunge across all major polls in the first half of June.[1]

Figure 1. Approval ratings of Prime Minister Kishida’s Cabinet in June 2023.

Simultaneously, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) conducted its own survey twice in June to make sure the leadership knew where the party stood, in the eyes of voters, had a snap election been held. The first survey, held on June 3 and 4, reportedly indicated the LDP might lose about ten seats from 262 seats if a general election were held soon. The second survey, held on June 10 and 11, purportedly indicated the LDP might lose about 40 seats if a general election were to be held soon. It is customary to share results of political party surveys among a party’s faction leaders, but the results of these two LDP surveys in June were not officially shared with them.

Prime Minister Kishida was believed to have been thinking about the possibility of dissolving the House of Representatives and holding a snap election in early June. However, after carefully analyzing results of the public polls and the two LDP surveys, he finally ruled out speculation on June 15 that there would not be any general election anytime soon.

Prime Minister Kishida at a Children’s Kasumigaseki Tour Day held in Tokyo on August 2, 2023. (Official Website of the Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet)

Since Prime Minister Kishida declined a snap election, speculation on Japanese politics has shifted to whether he will reshuffle his Cabinet positions and change key leadership positions within the LDP. In addition, there is much speculation on who will assume important roles in the administration and the party. These moves, if made by Prime Minister Kishida, will be calculated to strengthen the Cabinet and the LDP leadership and create additional support as he navigates what is expected to be a difficult fall session. On the horizon, Prime Minister Kishida faces unpopular issues of how to finance both an increasing defense budget and childcare support, how to solve serious technical problems with the My Number ID card system, which includes replacement of current health care insurance cards with My Number ID cards. Since Prime Minister Kishida did not call for a snap election, it would be to his advantage to make concrete progress on his policies by appointing trusted and capable individuals to the key administrative and party positions.

Prime Minister Kishida has kept his cards close to his chest regarding reshuffling the Cabinet positions and changing LDP leadership positions. In fact, he recently said that he is not thinking about anything concrete regarding personnel changes and their timing, and instead is focusing on difficult and urgent policy issues. Considering his continuously declining approval ratings in July,[2] it would be wise for Prime Minister Kishida to focus on policy achievements while carefully seeking an opportunity to reshuffle his Cabinet and LDP leadership appointments.

Figure 2. Approval ratings of Prime Minister Kishida’s Cabinet in July 2023.

A Cabinet and party leadership reshuffle in August is technically possible but difficult in terms of the political calendar. Due to its seriousness, Prime Minister Kishida has ordered Digital Affairs Minister Kono; Health, Labour and Welfare Minister Katsunobu Kato; Internal Affairs and Communications Minister Takeaki Matsumoto, and relevant ministers to conduct a “comprehensive inspection” and publish an interim report on the My Number system problems in early August. This is one of the prime minister’s priority issues as the government plans to review all the data, which can be seen by registered users, on the My Number portal in the fall. Furthermore, Prime Minister Kishida is scheduled to travel to Washington on August 17 to attend the U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit at Camp David, as well as two bilateral meetings with President Biden and President Suk Yeol Yoon, respectively. Additionally, ministries and agencies are scheduled to submit budget requests for fiscal 2024 around the same time.

Personnel changes in the Cabinet and the LDP leadership are possible in September. The LDP bureaucracy would prefer to have personnel changes in conjunction with the expiration of the current terms of party leadership positions in September. Moreover, if a snap election is held before the end of the year, appointing new Cabinet members in September would leave a shorter time for the media to scrutinize these new appointments for personal issues and possible scandals. And yet, Prime Minister Kishida has a full schedule in September, too. He must make sure the My Number ID card system works without hitches and smoothly replaces the health care insurance cards. Furthermore, Prime Minister Kishida has a series of diplomatic events in September. He is scheduled to attend an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Indonesia from September 4 to 7, a Group of 20 summit in India on September 9 and 10, and a UN Assembly high-level week in New York September 18 to 22. These diplomatic engagements leave a narrow window of opportunity for personnel reshuffling around mid-September.

Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi speaks at a press conference after a board of directors meeting on July 25, 2023. (Official Website of the Liberal Democratic Party)

If Prime Minister Kishida decides to introduce personnel changes, a focal point is how he would treat LDP Secretary-General Toshimitsu Motegi, who is leader of Heisei Kenkyukai, the third largest faction within the LDP. Secretary-General Motegi is widely regarded as not so keen on dissolving the House of Representatives and holding a snap election for preservation of his chance to challenge Prime Minister Kishida for the party presidency next year. Prime Minister Kishida might tap former Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Yuko Obuchi, who belongs to Heisei Kenkyukai, to assume a larger role. Her father was former Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, who brokered the coalition with Komeito in 1999 together with Mikio Aoki, former old guard of the LDP in the House of Counsellors, who passed away in June. Former Economy, Trade and Industry Minister Obuchi is regarded as a well-rounded lawmaker and a candidate to lead Heisei Kenkyukai in the future.

Another focal point is how Prime Minister Kishida would deal with Digital Affairs Minister Taro Kono. He is very popular among the electorate, having 2.6 million X (formerly Twitter) followers, by far the largest number of followers among Japanese lawmakers. The debacle with the My Number ID card system is widely regarded as his mishandling and on June 9, Minister Kono himself said “I must be disciplined” in a House of Counsellors Digital Transformation Special Committee.

It is likely Prime Minister Kishida is considering personnel changes in the Cabinet and the LDP leadership to revitalize his government and rejuvenate his image as the leader of the country. His party leadership hinges on how well he handles personnel changes that lead to a successful general election and the holding off potential challengers.

[1] Approval and disapproval ratings of the Kishida Cabinet compiled by Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA in Figure 1.

[2] Approval and disapproval ratings of the Kishida Cabinet compiled by Sasakawa Peace Foundation USA in Figure 2.

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